On our way back into the palace, we saw Senaria and Brinkman in their favorite spot, lounging under one of the beautiful old trees in the central courtyard (in fact the very same tree I had found her sitting in several months earlier). Her face was bisected by a huge grin as she listened to him recount a long and apparently very funny story.
"I feel a bit sorry for Rann," I said sympathetically. "He used to spend all his time with her. I wonder what he's doing instead these days?" The tragic answer came a few minutes later as we passed the upstairs living room and found him lying on the floor, eyes glazed, half-watching a television documentary on the sex lives of sea cucumbers.
"Rann," Kiri said, eyeing him sympathetically, "I really need to revive some of my swordsmanship skills. Feel like doing some training?" For several seconds the flabbergasted youth was speechless, and Kiri had to grab him by the ponytail and lift him to his feet before he snapped out of it. "Come on, humor an old woman," she gibed, taking his hand and dragging him from the room.
Just minutes later there was a general rush to the windows overlooking the inner courtyard as a metallic clatter disturbed the usual tranquility of the palace. Joining the stampede, I looked down to see Kiri and Rann happily clashing practice swords on one of the open patches of turf. One might have expected a chorus of complaints from the various offices to descend upon the communications desk, but in fact virtually all of the viewers were delighted with the spectacle, as were Senaria and Brinkman, still under their tree.
We were also treated to a brief but entertaining side show when several of the greener military guards assigned to the palace, unfamiliar with Rann's identity, dashed in with real swords drawn to protect their Empress from an apparent assassination attempt. It took several minutes of raised voices and frantic gesticulation, nicely seasoned with some of Kiri's spicier profanity, to straighten things out, after which the guards joined the rest of the enraptured audience while submitting to a few good-natured catcalls from the gallery.
Later I asked Kiri how it had gone. "Well," she said ruefully, "he actually has a lot of potential, if I can just convince him that the whole point is for him to hit me with the practice blade. I suspect it's going to be a bit difficult to accustom him to the idea of attacking his beloved Empress, no matter how make-believe it is." Presumably she succeeded to her satisfaction, because the afternoon bouts became a regular part of the palace entertainment--at least when our onerous schedule of meetings and conferences didn't render it impossible. On more than one occasion Kiri came dashing in after a meeting had already begun, dripping with sweat and smelling like a goat (or so I've been told; I've never had the dubious honor of sniffing one of the noisome ruminants).
That evening at dinner Brinkman was in fine form, even attempting to crack a few jokes in newly learned Deshtiran (although he then had to explain them in English before we got them). Rann was also looking a lot less glum, especially after receiving several compliments from Senaria on his form that afternoon. His self-confidence was sufficiently restored for him to ask her out to a movie in downtown Deshti that evening, and to his delight she accepted. (Centuries of high-tech video haven't dulled the impact of seeing a drama played out on a larger than life screen, even though the technology is much different.) Soon they had drifted away, shortly followed by Gelhinda, leaving just the three of us.
"So how are you and Senaria getting along?" Kiri casually inquired. "She seems to have taken a real shine to you. I must say, I wasn't quite expecting that."
"Well," the physicist answered innocently, "I am impressed at her teaching skills. She didn't strike me as the intellectual type when I first met her, but she has a real knack for organizing her ideas."
"Mmm-hmm," Kiri said. I snickered, remembering our conversation on the drive to Fontana.
"So what's that supposed to mean?" he protested after a pause, his face reddening.
"Now Alan," she said dryly, "I've known you for a good twenty years, and it just isn't your style to court a pretty young woman without hoping to get her into the sack sooner or later. Don't tell me you've embraced celibacy; the very thought would kill you in a week."
"Let me guess," he scoffed. "You're going to ask me to keep my lecherous mitts off Senaria because she's too pure and innocent to be ruined by a dirty old man like myself."
Kiri guffawed at that. "Senaria's neither pure nor innocent, and she's a lot shrewder than you give her credit for. I'd be the last person to presume to tell her how to manage her sex life. I imagine by now she's got you pretty well figured out on her own."
Brinkman looked startled and a bit deflated. "And just what's that supposed to mean?" he retorted defensively.
"I mean that she probably already knows you're arrogant, self-centered and incapable of relating to your sex partners as adults," she said good-naturedly as I gaped in astonishment. "Look, Alan," she continued, "we've been friends for a long time and you know I've always told you the truth. I'm not out to be deliberately brutal, but you also shouldn't ask me something if you don't want an honest answer."
By now he was thoroughly angry. "I always thought you liked me," he snapped.
"Of course I do," she said. "You have a wonderful mind to bounce ideas against, you have a delightful sense of humor, and you're very good in bed. Or at least you were a quarter of a century ago," she added, seeing the startled look I shot in her direction. "But I don't think I could live with you, at least not if you treated me the way you seem to treat your conquests. I've seen the bimbos you've picked up on campus over the years, and they all shared the same distinguishing traits: cute, stacked, submissive, and stupid. I think the only exception was that wonderful woman you were married to for a little while; what was her name? Carolyn?"
"I don't want to talk about her," he muttered.
"Well," Kiri went on patiently, "Senaria may meet the first two of your criteria, but she's definitely not stupid, even if she doesn't speak quantum thermodynamics. And as for submissive, well, god help you if you act on that particular misapprehension."
"I think I ought to go to bed." He rose to his feet and stalked out as I mentally heaved a sigh of relief.
"Whew," I said once he was out of earshot. "Think he'll ever speak to you again?"
Kiri chuckled. "Oh, we've always fought like that over the years. He's a bit like a child that hates to be corrected, but forgets about it by the next day. Unfortunately he never seems to learn from it, either," she added sadly. "I think eventually one of two things is going to happen to him: he's going to find a real reason to change, or he's going to die a very lonely man. I truly feel sorry for him sometimes."
The next few days were hectic ones, as Kiri and I became caught up in preparations for the opening of the first planetary legislative session in thirty years. Although the rebuilding of the palace had been the center of our own lives for the past few months, the refurbishing of the old legislative capitol building, which unlike the palace was located near the center of the city, had been proceeding simultaneously (at taxpayer expense, I might add). The election campaigns had been relatively free of recriminations, though there were certainly plenty of different viewpoints put before the public to be sorted through.
At least the public had a decent chance of doing so intelligently in this case, as Deshtiran election law (restored more or less in its entirety to its pre-Brizali form) requires the passing of a voter competency exam in order to exercise the right to vote. In addition to demonstrating the ability to read and write, the prospective voter must also show at least a passing acquaintance with the current candidates and issues.
I remember that some months later Kiri and I had quite a discussion on the subject. Naturally, my liberal sentiments were outraged at the very idea of a voter competency test. "Why?" Kiri asked. And then she waited, her eyes boring into me, something that always left me a bit flustered.
"Well, because it discriminates, of course."
"Against whom?" she wanted to know. I thought about that. Deshtiris doesn't really have ethnic minorities in the Earth sense, due to several thousand years of crossbreeding. In addition, centuries of mass communication and easy travel have made it possible for the best elements of every culture to become familiar and available to everyone.
"The economically disadvantaged," I finally announced triumphantly.
"Meaning exactly what?" she demanded. "In your adopted country huge blocs of people are denied good jobs because of trivial genetically-based characteristics, such as skin color or facial configuration. Then they're forced to live in areas where cheap housing is available. Next, the funding for their schools is based on the substandard income level for that area. Finally, it's been made politically and legally impossible for teachers to impose discipline in their classrooms. But our schools are all funded equally; we have stricter discipline in our schools than even Japan has; and so anyone who wants a high quality education can get one. Try again," she jeered.
By now I was starting to feel like bait on a hook. "All right," I ventured gingerly, "how about the intellectually challenged?" She guffawed at that one; political correctness was definitely not part of her creed.
"Let me put it this way," she snorted. "How would you like a brain surgeon operating on you who didn't have the intellectual equipment to pass his or her medical exams?"
"But that's a life and death issue." Even as I said it I knew I was toast.
"A brain surgeon only kills one person at a time," she said patiently, "at least if they stay out of politics. How many people can an incompetent voter kill? Not to mention how many lives can one ruin? The recent history of this planet is proof of that, I think. Whether it's because a voter is just not very smart, or is too lazy to study the issues, is really irrelevant, don't you think?"
"That's an awfully elitist attitude," I protested.
"Elitist?" she exploded. "Of course it's elitist. Any time you exclude someone in some way you're being elitist. And your point is?"
Well, that's when I gave up. I had to admit that even though her logic was impeccable, the idea still bothered me. But that's the way it is here (and on Qozernon as well), and I don't plan to start a crusade to change it.
Getting back to the Deshtiran Assembly, as it's called, we could count on some two hundred legislators and their support staff converging on the city within the next week. Considering that in most cases they were the most influential and respected citizens of their provinces, it could be assumed that they would be expecting, if not demanding, something resembling decent accommodations and services when they arrived, and the city was still being reconstructed practically from scratch.
Fortunately a lot of the groundwork had already been laid, thanks to the recent coronation. Many of the skyscrapers which had been virtual shells at that time were now actively functional, although probably still primitive by Earth corporate luxury standards. We soon found ourselves signing (or refusing) endless priority override requests for this or that communications hookup, data equipment, or, less often, decorative furnishings. We also spent a great deal of time greeting the newcomers as they arrived, and found them to present an interesting spectrum, ranging from humble ex-factory workers obviously awed at their new surroundings to arrogant executive types used to getting whatever they wanted (and who had probably been quite comfortable working with the Brizali).
The opening day of the Assembly found Kiri and me once again donning our skimpy but ornate ceremonial garb, and this time we felt considerably less self-conscious as we strolled through the newly-refurbished legislative chambers. Although the building was air-conditioned, in Deshti that usually meant a temperature somewhere in the upper eighties, since to the city's inhabitants that was considered a deliciously cool setting. Most of the legislators from our latitude or lower were accustomed to this and dressed accordingly in shorts and sleeveless shirts. There were a few unfortunate souls, however (mostly from the higher latitudes) that were obviously overdressed and overheated, and I took a certain malicious delight in estimating how long it would take before necessity overtook propriety. At least one showed up later that same session having crudely scissored off his shirt sleeves and pant legs; I wondered what his constituents would have thought had they seen him then.
I won't go into the details of the formal ceremonies, which were both standard and tedious, as most such events seem to be. However, this time it was Kiri's turn to make the speech, like it or not, and in spite of her dire predictions she did a magnificent job. In any case, she probably could have recited the Futaba's operating manual and no one would have minded.
I had managed to slip offstage during some of the preliminary speeches so as to observe hers from the balcony, and wasn't disappointed. How can I describe the cumulative impact of that slender, not particularly tall figure with the deep red hair and brilliant green eyes visible even from my remote location? Her rich voice, still slightly hoarse after all these months from her ordeal at Tar Deshta, seemed almost to merge with the glints of intense color that from time to time scintillated from the scattered bits of cloth and metal adorning her slim frame.
Her speech was both an appeal and a warning: an appeal to not allow the political process to become irreparably corrupted by the power of money as it had just before the Brizal takeover, and a warning that whatever it cost her she would never allow it to happen again. In other times, with other legislators, I suppose it could have been seen as an affront, or a challenge, but today she received only a roar of affirmation as she finished, and an ovation that lasted for much longer than the time it took me to regain my assigned place. When she sat down she was trembling with suppressed excitement. "Could be addictive, couldn't it?" I whispered into her ear, and was rewarded with a glare and a distinct blush.
Afterwards we met Gelhinda, Senaria, Rann and Brinkman in the foyer. "Kiri, that took a lot of courage to say," said an obviously moved Gelhinda.
"Well, you know me," Kiri answered lightly. "I'd just as soon we all know where we stand. After all, diplomacy doesn't have to mean lying through my teeth."
"I'm not sure I shouldn't be insulted by that," retorted Gelhinda with a smile.
"Well, Kiri," Brinkman broke in, "I don't know who your clothing designer is, but he certainly knows how to showcase a great figure," and it was obvious that he was having a hard time keeping his eyes off the body in question. Senaria gave a theatrical sigh, rolling her eyes.
"Speaking of knowing where you stand," jibed Kiri to general laughter.
"So who's coming to the banquet afterwards?" I asked, receiving an affirmative response from Gelhinda.
"I think we're all speeched out," said Brinkman.
"We're going to check out Deshti's night life," chimed in Senaria.
"I didn't know Deshti had a night life," I said in sincere surprise.
"You don't get out much, do you?" Kiri snorted.
"Look who's talking," Senaria shot back. "You two are usually in bed before nine most nights. Talk about boring."
"If you think that, I'd say you're the one who doesn't get out much," Kiri leered, bringing more laughter from everyone except a puzzled Rann, whose face finally turned pink when he caught on.
"What about you, Rann?" I asked, turning to the embarrassed youth.
"Me?" he gulped. "What?" inciting fresh laughter.
"Are you going to the banquet?" I clarified.
"Oh, no," he stammered apologetically, "I think I'll just turn in early," promptly making himself the target of several ribald comments.
"Leave him alone," said Gelhinda, "He's coming to the banquet with me, aren't you, Rann? You don't want to leave me without a date for the evening, do you?" The upshot was that eventually Brinkman and Senaria departed for their pub crawl, or whatever, and the rest of us made arrangements to return to the palace to change in time to meet our visitors, for the banquet was being held in the great meeting hall of the palace.
An interesting difference between the Deshtiran and Terran sociology of fame is that on Earth during all this we would probably have been crushed to death by well-wishers and autograph-seekers, but here we were left relatively alone, with the obviously entranced crowd nonetheless maintaining a discreet distance. As I've said before, privacy is one of the most cherished possessions on Deshtiris, even in public. Only when Kiri issued a loud invitation for the onlookers to please come introduce themselves did they gingerly begin to approach us, and before long it was something like being in the middle of an exceptionally well-behaved stampede.
We finally found our way to the subway entrance for the ride back to the palace, for we made a point of using public transportation to keep the walls down between us and the rest of the populace as much as possible. I deliberately sat next to Rann and tried to engage him in conversation, as he was visibly more downcast than usual. Small talk was all I could get out of him, however, and I ended up leaving well enough alone.
The banquet itself went smoothly, which is to say no one keeled over from food poisoning or a heart attack from overeating. Gelhinda had a great time showing off the attractive young stud at her side, although Rann himself seemed to be off in outer space somewhere for a good part of the evening, and I had a pretty good idea where. Apart from that, it was about as exciting as most banquets are. Needless to say, Kiri and I were in bed before nine that evening, and needless to say----
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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